The Rise Of The Meta-Ad

by , Feb 7, 2014, 8:16 AM
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I saw a movie last week. What was interesting about the experience, besides the movie, were the pre-roll ads. One was a making-of spot about a new Xbox One ad campaign. In it, actors like Zachary Quinto of “Star Trek” fame (and “Glass Menagerie,” if you're in New York) and soccer star Steven Gerrard talked about how exciting it was to make the ad. 

It’s an advertisement before a movie that's about making an ad, but that comments on the traditional ad itself by showing what's behind the curtain. I'm seeing this more and more. Yes, I know it's an effective online component of a TV campaign that fits the YouTube state of mind, but it's also a concession to how people think about ads now. 

Meta-advertising is based on the understanding among marketers that social media has atomized marketing — everyone is a marketer now, really, at least to some extent, even if that the medium is one's Facebook page. We are in a world where most of the consumers marketers would like to reach spend as much, uh, more time looking at screens than at the world; a world, therefore, in which people consider advertising as much the product as the  product itself. Younger people, especially, haven't the slightest misapprehension about how advertising works, who it's targeting and what it's meant to do (ask the average 7th grader). 

And meta-ads belie the understanding marketers have about reaching people who are quite possibly better marketers than they are. The ads work by commenting on themselves, on how to target the target by playing on stereotypes about the target; by being exhibitionist about their social-media strategy; about exploiting celebrity; and generally about manipulation. In some cases, affecting an ironic, jaded tone is effective.  

So I think you can put these ads into categories: 

1. In Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love," Alex Baldwin's character becomes the conscience of a young man who, against his better judgement, falls for a young, shallow and affected actress. He both warns the young man about the dangers of his romantic dalliance and details to him precisely what he's going to do. The Super Bowl SodaStream ad — the one you can see online that didn’t run — is a commentary on getting buzz. “If only I could make this message go viral,” says Scarlet Johansson. SodaStream's own stymied efforts to mention Coke and Pepsi during Super Bowl advertising and exploiting Johansson's own pulchritude via her salacious bit with a straw work whether you think it won't or not. Selling sex sells, and telling you that sex sells sells. 

2. This should be part II of the above: Parodying machismo. The older Old Spice ads, “The man your man could smell like,” are examples: A humorous comment on antiperspirants, these are direct parodies of every single male-directed ad ever made that embodies the product in a guy with, say, an eye-patch, or rugged face and cowboy hat with a cigarette, the right hair, or the guy who woos beautiful women simply by using the right shaving instrument, or the guy in the right car, right shoes. Etc.  

3. Behind-the-scenes ads of all sorts: Sometimes these ads try to pull back the curtain on the wizard but also work in a traditional product pitch by having the actors themselves extol the virtues of the product. My advice: stop doing that. It's totally irrelevant and a distraction. Nobody believes a word of it. I can't count the number of times I've either seen a making-of ad where one of the actors says, "I wanted to do this, because I feel strongly about it, I believe in the product, because I think it's authentic.” You’d think it was for The Red Cross. It's either irrelevant or bullshit. Remember, you are dealing with people who have no illusions about this. They’re thinking, "Yeah, right. So I guess they have such a passion for this product that they're doing the ad for free because, it’s not about the money."  

4. Parodies of making-of ads: VW's humorous video shorts about how to make the perfect Super Bowl ads via various feckless algorithms exemplifies this. I really hoped that some version of that online video series would have been tailored for VW’s Super Bowl ad spot, and was a disappointed when it wasn’t.    

5. Ads that use celebrities, comment on the fact that they are using celebrities, and make fun of the fact that they are using celebrities. The number-one example is the brilliant Foot Locker ad in which Mike Tyson gives Evander Holyfield his ear back and Dennis Rodman is roundly booed at an airline ticket counter as he heads to North Korea. And maybe even T-Mobile’s Tim Tebow ad during the Super Bowl. You don't really need a contract.

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